Election showed breadth of Riley's base


Leroy Burnell

Wrapping up the recent city of Charleston mayoral election, let's examine the facts. Despite perceived voter unrest and cacophonous protest over a (relatively small) number of Mayor Joe Riley's projects and initiatives, the mayor ended up winning two-thirds of the vote and absolutely gutting the competition. A slam dunk, in your face, smackdown "cruise" to victory, as the mayor alluded to in his victory speech.

What's really amazing is that those (like me) who expected a race of some sort were so clueless and insular as to the breadth of Riley's base. Incredible! I wonder if Joe himself could have predicted this.

Political Science 101: A 2:1 margin against several different opponents at the same time is something known as a mandate, and those who anticipated otherwise got their you-know-whats handed to them on a silver platter -- no ifs, ands or butts.

Does anybody remember Pauline Kael or know anything about her?

If you're younger than 35 or so, the answer would be "no" unless you happen to be a student of film history or criticism. It's interesting that someone as famous as she once was has so utterly faded into obscurity.

It didn't take long. When she retired as chief film critic for The New Yorker in 1991, it made headlines; when she died 10 years later, there was hardly any notice.

In her prime, though, she was the most influential and controversial movie critic around, whose breezy, refreshing style was about the only reason many people bothered to thumb through The New Yorker back in the day.

That was when the magazine was staid, genteel and highly literary. (Tina Brown would change all that.) But Kael's sassy brashness was eminently readable and entertaining to a broad range, even if she managed to ruffle feathers along the way. She personally recalled an esteemed New Yorker writer "suggesting that I was trampling through the pages of the magazine with cowboy boots covered with dung."

Like Clive Barnes, chief theater critic for The New York Times during roughly the same era, the weight of Kael's criticism could spell ruin for a movie that didn't impress her in the same way that Barnes' criticism could tank a Broadway production.

Not all the time, of course. She was famously dismissive of "The Sound of Music" (while writing for McCall's), calling it "a sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat," and further asking if there wasn't perhaps "one little Von Trapp who didn't want to sing his head off?"

Conversely, she raved over other movies that fellow critics panned, the most notable example of which was likely Marlon Brando's "Last Tango in Paris." Kael was the most prominent of film critics vying for a chance to offer serious criticism of the 1972 pornographic movie "Deep Throat," but was denied the opportunity by senior editors at The New Yorker.

Kael had her critics, not the least of whom was New Yorker colleague Renata Adler, who, in a poison pen review, described Kael's 1980 collection, "When the Lights Go Down," as "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." The review shocked Kael and became notorious in literary circles, although it might now be said that all anybody can remember of Adler is her criticism of Kael.

Which again begs the question: What do people remember about Pauline Kael? Thanks to modern communications where everyone can blog and be a critic, the task of identifying pre-eminent, standout criticism is obscured by the sheer volume of noise.

By 2001, this was already an issue, and the idea that everyone is a critic was becoming quite literal. At any rate, when Kael died that same year, the impact of the occasion roused little attention.

But, as Frank Rich pointed out in a recent New York Times Book Review concerning two new publications on Kael, it was the "obsessive, even self-destructive personal investment that makes her work, both at its extraordinary best and its most egregious, unlike anything else in the modern history of cultural criticism."

"If you want to understand what it was like to be in the audience during America's thrilling, now vanished age of movies, you must begin with Kael."

The two new publications are Brian Kellow's biography, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark," and the Library of America anthology "The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael."

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.